There is much to celebrate in Emmanuel Macron‘s ascent to the French presidency. The election was a resounding defeat for the forces of reaction. Macron conducted himself with decency and intelligence and achieved his victory without submitting to the prevailing xenophobic impulse. In acknowledging France’s imperial excesses, in standing up to Vladimir Putin, and in resisting Donald Trump‘s provocations, he seemed to herald a bold new politics that would align power with principle.
Since assuming power, however, Macron’s statements have been more equivocal. His recent comments on Syria suggest that in the balance between ideals and pragmatism, the president is leaning heavier on the latter. Speaking tothe European press, Macron announced his break with past policy. “I haven’t said the deposing of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for everything,” he said. “Because no one has introduced me to his legitimate successor!” Instead, he emphasised the need for “a political and diplomatic roadmap”; because, “We won’t solve the question only with military force.”
The cliche about military force would be meaningful, if it came from the party that is committed to military victory. But the monopoly on violence in Syria is held by the regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Together, they are responsible for over 90 percent of all civilian deaths. The West has deployed its military force primarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and al-Qaeda, and, occasionally, also against anti-Assad fighters (often indiscriminately). France has never confronted Assad; and only under Trump has the US tackled the regime in five rare instances, the most significant being the cruise missile strike on the Shayrat airbase after the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
For the leader of France to foreswear military force in Syria is quite meaningless. The real question is if Assad, Russia and Iranaccept that there is no military solution. They don’t.
It is also not necessary for Syrians to produce a legitimate leader before they can rid themselves of a decidedly illegitimate one. The very cause of the conflict in Syria is that citizens were denied the right to elect legitimate leaders. Which is what makes Macron’s next statement puzzling. “Democracy isn’t built from the outside without the people,” he says. But in Syria, people inside were trying to build democracy. The only assistance they asked for was not to be gassed, starved, tortured or disappeared in the process.
To avoid having to address the present, Macron reverts to the past and refers to the debacles in Iraq and Libya. “What was the result of those interventions?” he asks. “Failed states where terrorist groups prospered.”
But the Iraq war had nothing in common with Libya, let alone with Syria. There was no popular uprising in 2003 and nor was there an imminent humanitarian crisis. Saddam had committed his worst crimes in the 1980s and 90s. In Libya, France intervened, with UN support, to prevent an imminent slaughter and 75 percent of the Libyan population approved. The subsequent disaster had less to do with Muammar Gaddafi‘s removal than with the failure to help consolidate Libya’s nascent democracy, leaving it vulnerable to domestic and foreign subversion – France’s included. If Iraq and Libya have turned into “failed states where terrorist groups prospered”, it’s mainly because the logic of the “war on terror” has trumped the logic of democracy and human rights.
It is in Syria, however, that Macron’s argument really founders. If Iraq shows that unprovoked action has consequences, Syria proves that inaction in the face of provocation, too, can lead to disaster. The war Syrian has killed over a half-million people, over five million have fled and 6.3 million are internally displaced.
The root of the Syrian crisis is the Syrian regime; ISIL is its mere symptom. Committing to fight the latter while ignoring the former is not “realism”, it is wishful thinking. Macron has been at his most effective when he speaks from principle. His reiteration of his red line – which he has now expanded to also include humanitarian corridors – is a welcome development. But if he believes that Assad is merely an enemy of the Syrian people, then he needs to be reacquainted with John Donne’s admonition: no man is an island.
In 2013, Barack Obama also thought Assad was someone else’s problem and walked away from his redline. With this residual constraint lifted, the regime escalated its violence and killed nearly four times as many people in the two years after the chemical attack as it had in the two years before. This was the turning point that discredited Assad’s democratic opposition, empowered the Islamists, and led to the rise of ISIL. It was also the moment when the refugees‘ flight spiked. The overflow from this deluge trickling into Europe sparked the xenophobic backlash that the far right has exploited across the West; and, while the brunt of ISIL terror is born by Syrians and Iraqis, Europe, too, became a target of its indiscriminate fury.
Macron should know, because in the same interview he criticised Obama for failing to enforce his redline, creating a vacuum that was filled by the forces of reaction. But that abdication is not a historical detail: Its effects continue to fester.
Syria will never be at peace as long as Assad remains in power. Over half of Syria’s population will be unable to return home for fear of reprisal (and why wouldn’t Assad seek and destroy his enemies, since he has learned that there is literally no crime that he cannot get away with). ISIL will be defeated, but the morbid symptoms it embodies may take even more grotesque form unless the underlying cause is addressed.
In the interview, Macron spoke eloquently of Europe’s love of justice; he also spoke of democracy, individual freedoms and social justice; and he warned of the threat of authoritarian regimes. The Syrians who rose up against Syria’s authoritarian regime share these principles. Macron’s words will ring hollow if he allows these people to be crushed and authoritarians everywhere will be emboldened, taking this as license to ruthlessly quash dissent.
What Assad has done in Syria is not a crime against Syrians alone, it is a crime against humanity. It is not for Syria alone that the bell tolls, it tolls for all of us. Macron says he rejects neoconservative interventionism; but he needs to be just as leery of “realist” lack of imagination. It was the pursuit of “stability” after all that gave us the Mubaraks, Saddams and Assads. The aggravating dissonance will persist until the West learns to side with citizens instead of their oppressors.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.